On The Bright Side: Connor Hellebuyck

It’s been quite the whirlwind season for Connor Hellebuyck. From being the only saving grace at times for a young and often outmatched Manitoba Moose team, to being… the same thing for the Winnipeg Jets, Hellebuyck has seen more rubber than the average road and come out of it looking like the netminder of the future in Winnipeg.

While it’s true he was sent back to the minors upon Ondrej Pavelec’s return to action, there’s very little surprise in that. After all, he’s the one who can slip back down to the minors without the potential for a waver pickup, and, as the youngest of the three, his biggest growth will come when he’s actually playing games. For goalies especially, there’s no point sitting in the press box at that age; you can only learn so much through osmosis and regular practice with the goalie coach.

Hellebuyck’s first season with the Jets wasn’t perfect by any means. Toward the end especially it looked like the heavy load he was being asked to shoulder in his first season was starting to weigh on him, and he was pulled from the net early in one game too many. That said, his overall statistics with the Jets are more than satisfactory for a 22-year-old rookie netminder. The Jets weren’t looking for perfection from Hellebuyck (though there were times it seemed he was close). They were looking for solid play, and a glimpse of the future while he got his feet wet in the NHL. They got both those things, and the future between the pipes looks impressive at first glance.

Hellebuyck? Helle-Yeah!

Jet fans coined that amusing little phrase shortly before his call-up from the minors, and it stuck. It’s hard to begrudge Jets fans their enthusiasm. After all, aside from last year’s magical stretch run from Pavelec, goaltending has been a major source of consternation for Jets faithful dating all the way back to 2011. Hellebuyck offered a glimpse of hope for the future, and he was playing very well in the AHL. Apparently his time away from the Moose hasn’t diminished his ability to carry them through games either, if only they could score.

Of course Hellebuyck’s play was bound to get him noticed outside Winnipeg at some point, and the U23 Team North America at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey represented a great opportunity for Hellebuyck. While his Jets teammate Mark Scheifele was snubbed (Scheifele’s recent offensive tear may change that) Hellebuyck was named as one of the goalies for the team alongside John Gibson and Matt Murray.

The way Hellebuyck’s season had been going, and given his international experience as a bronze medal winner at the 2015 World Championships with team USA, this wasn’t a surprise to anybody. While Gibson is the expected starter, thanks to his greater NHL experience, don’t be surprised if Hellebuyck claims that starter’s role either.

This season was a disaster for the Jets in so many ways, but Hellebuyck made the most of the disaster and showed his stuff on the biggest hockey stage of his career. While he ultimately cooled off at the end of his stint with the Jets, he showed off enough to be named to yet another big stage. As good as this season has been to Hellebuyck, full of attention and milestones, next season could be even bigger. Could the World Cup be just the thing he needs to give a huge second NHL season a jump?

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All this positivity might make some fans sick to their stomach, especially as the Jets season unravels before their eyes and continues its slow descent into lottery territory, and we’ll get back to reality soon, but Hellebuyck’s season is worth a little fawning. After all, this is the goalie of the future for Winnipeg. This could be the season people talk about years from now as his introduction to the NHL.

Between Hellebuyck, Scheifele, and all the other youngsters the Jets are slowly yet surely bringing along, there will be a good hockey team in Winnipeg again before you know it. Think positive, Jets fans!